“Waitress,” a Broadway musical with tunes by Sarah Bareilles, is efficient but falls short on the appeal meter – not the fault of the actors. It’s problematic when the best song is delivered by a secondary character and the score lacks a bona fide hit song.
The production, in its premiere Hawaii engagement, opened last night (May 27) at Diamond Head Theatre to an enthusiastic audience happy to be in a filled theater again. Two more performances have been added in the run through June 19.
Three memories recur, when I think of “Waitress,” which I saw in 2016 in its original Broadway run.
One, the waitress and pie-baker Jenna, was played by Jessie Mueller, who became a marquee name portraying Carole King in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” in 2014. She was engaging as Jenna and her presence and trajectory elevated “Waitress” as her follow-up show, thus it was a hit.
Two, the sidekick Becky, then was portrayed by Hawaii’s Keala Settle alongside Mueller, and it’s likely that this secondary role gave her perspective and impetus to later portray the Bearded Lady in 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” film and helped buoy the soundtrack to best seller status thanks to her big solo, “This Is Me.”
Three, Nick Cordero originated the role of Earl, Jenna’s husband; he was a popular, budding Broadway star, who died in 2020.
Four, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where “Waitress” was in residency, intermission was notably wondrous. Scents of baked apple pies, sold during the interlude, enhanced the onstage pie-ology. The delish-smelling mini-pastry was $10, but you had to devour it before returning to your seat.
Of course, DHT has none of the above, but I bring up these recollections simply to make a point that a modest musical can emit charm in various ways. It would be curiously joyful if someone becomes a somebody by being a part of this show; maybe it might be the unseen Lisa Nakasone, who created the pies for the show but not for concession sales; you never know.
The underlying theme of “Waitress” is to follow your dreams, strive for what you want; change may not be easy, but the journey might lead to happiness.
Jenna (Sarah Souza, optimistic and charming) is stuck in her life of pie-making and table-waiting. Her failing marriage to Earl (David Heulitt, deliberately unlikeable) makes her yearn to find a way out, via a baking contest to create an award-winning pie and a ticket to her freedom. Oh, she also happens to have something in the oven. A baby on the way.
She is comforted by her waitress colleagues Becky (Cassie Favreau-Chung, a buddy to the end), and Dawn (Karese Kakw-uh, dependably comedic), plus customer/diner owner Jo (Lisa Konove, savvy and engaging).
Jenna falls for her doc, Pomatter (Zachary Linnert, awkwardly hilarious), adding an ingredient to a delicate crust of infidelity.
The songs, often about pie recipes and baking as if they were metaphors in life, fail to propel Jenna, as the central figure, though she has one belter, “She Used to be Mine,” prior to the final curtain. But here’s the rub: the best tune, in Act 1, is “Never Getting Rid of Me,” featuring Ogie (Reyn Halford, hilarious and exuberant), that is the showstopper, complete with a memorable and dizzy Ogie dance. He’s the beau of Dawn, and he’s the show-saver.
Director Kevin Pease makes the best of a problematic script; it’s like baking, where you never know if a bit more sugar or a pinch of salt might improve the final product. For the record, the show’s music and lyrics by composer Bareilles are augmented by Jessie Nelson’s book. A key ingredient is lacking — that homerun song.
Ahnya Chang’s choreography is sensual and often emotional; her ensemble is visual and vital in most of the scenic changes, when bakery racks or kitchen shelves are choreographically whisked on and off stage.
Melina Lillios delivers orchestral pleasantries, but the compositions don’t stick in your memory bank. But pay attention to the cello in the five-member band – it’s Brian Webb, a member of Streetlight Cadence, who brings a sprinkle of stardust to the pie party.
Tickets: (808) 733-0274, firstname.lastname@example.org
Newly added shows: 7:30 p.m. June 18, 4 p.m. June 19.